Norway's Lofoten Islands are the most beautiful place on Earth. There, I've said it. I doubt I'll ever recant. As an unstoppable traveller for more than three decades, I often get asked where my favourite place is, and I always mumble and prevaricate. No longer. I don't care who argues. I don't care if Bora Bora is warmer and Alaska more glacier-encrusted. When I first sail into the Lofoten Islands, helped by a clear blue sky, I nearly fall to my knees on the deck of Viking Star and start singing hallelujah.
Surely the Lofoten Islands demonstrate that god must be a minimalist Nordic designer with a liking for chilly beauty and elemental colours. If so, this is his ultimate moment of sheer joyous creation. Scoured rocks the size of mountains rear from the sea. Bony fiords stab towards distant snow peaks. The water morphs from deep blue to green intensity. Dwarfed red cottages add a stirring human element that makes me imagine thick sweaters and fishing nets and whale stew.
Viking Star docks near the town of Leknes on as fine a bay as I've ever seen. The port is just a quay and a shed overwhelmed by natural splendour. Shortly one of Viking's daily included shore excursions is taking us around the shoreline to Ballstad. Racks of drying cod hang like surrealist washing in this cod-fishing village, where houses are pink and yellow, and boats are trim white in a blue harbour.
The landscape is as pure and simple as a kindergarten drawing, and it just gets better as we trundle towards Haukland, where meadows are scattered with confetti of yellow wildflowers, and Uttakleiv beach, where mountains meet milky blue bay. Every boulder seems to have been rounded and polished by trolls.
Later that afternoon I simply walk off the ship, down the road, past a horseracing track and up Haugheia hill. Farmland falls away and I arrive on sheep-nibbled moors where utterly fabulous views stretch across bays and meadows and mountains. The sea is a startling Tahitian blue. Thanks to almost 24-hour daylight at this time of year, the buttercups and dandelions are enormous. Far away, across the town of Gravdal and the ocean, the Norwegian mainland is a serrated edge of snow caps. If there's a more splendid walk straight off a cruise ship anywhere in the world, I've yet to find it.
It's fortunate that the Lofoten Islands is the final stop in Norway on this Viking cruise that takes me from Bergen to London. If I'd been doing the itinerary the other way around, nothing else that came after would quite have matched up. Not that the rest of Norway is a disappointment. Clearly god was working his way up to this grand finale as he moved along the mainland coastline, pimping the scenery into an extravagance of meringue-white mountain ranges and plunging cliffs.
Actually, just the day before I might have announced that the fiord we sailed into, Tromso, was the most beautiful place on Earth. I'm not sure exactly which way we arrive or which fiord it is, because Norway's northern city sits in a creased bay on an indented island off a coastline of endless convolutions and other islands and channels that wind between white mountains. But we seem to be sailing the white-and-blue way to a cold, austere heaven. I expect Nordic angels to descend. Instead, passengers gather on the decks, chirping in astonishment.
That evening, as we sail away via another waterway entirely, I have the decks all to myself. It's 10pm, the sun is still high, and the ship glides through another majestic collision of rock and water. This is what you enjoy again and again along Norway's coast. Approaches and departures from ports always involve a long meander along deep fiords cleft between islands and mountains. Viking Star's light-filled design showcases the scenery from every angle and reflects it in every window. Whether I'm forking up seared cod fillet in the restaurant, pacing the decks or partaking of afternoon tea in the Wintergarden, Norway is my constant companion.
I'm lucky, of course. The weather has been with me on this cruise. There must be days when you sail into Tromso and see nothing but fog, or seabirds wheeling against greyness. The locals, too, are making the most of the unexpected warmth and sunshine. In Folkeparken in Tromso I find them strewn on the rocks in their underpants as if tossed there by some terrible disaster. Teenagers leap off the jetty into the icy water, emerging lobster-pink and exhilarated. We're ringed by incredible snow ranges, a bold baroque backdrop to our puny human endeavours.
You can't get tired of these mountains, even though you can see them almost 24 hours a day on this summer cruise. It's said you can see 222 snow peaks from Molde, another port of call much further south. You see them even on the day at sea, when Viking Star meanders through countless islands and rock pyramids. Scraped-down outer islands are humped and wind-scoured. Inland, fiords plunge and mountains rear.
You could, I suppose, get a taster in New Zealand. Milford Sound is a great cruise experience too. But the whole coast of Norway features hundreds of Milford Sounds, with the Swedish skerries and the Swiss Alps and a thousand waterfalls thrown in for good measure. Plus 50,000 islands, or thereabouts – who can count them all? There's nowhere else on earth you can cruise through such scenery. Alaska and the Chilean coast are different, wild and intimidating. In Norway, in spite of the remoteness, there's always a touch of humanity to add that little bit of comfort and contrast: red farmhouses, yellow floats marking fish farms, white lighthouses, chugging green ferries.
Norway's towns aren't beautiful, though Molde and Tromso are pleasant enough. Bergen is the highlight, and positions itself as the cultural capital of Norway thanks to its associations with playwright Henrik Ibsen and the composer Edvard Grieg, whose house you can visit on a shore excursion. It's the nation's former medieval capital, whose wharf is lined with cheerful gabled houses, but you don't come to Norway for well-preserved old towns or high culture, never mind ancient ruins. Cruise the Mediterranean if that's what you're after – though Norway does of course have Viking history, explored on various shore excursions and through excellent on-board lectures.
You cruise Norway for one simple reason: location, location, location. It's the most beautiful country on Earth. After all these years of travelling I've finally made a decision. You can argue all you like, but I'm not listening. I'm too busy staring at the scenery.
Summer sailings miss one of Norway's most famous natural phenomena, the northern lights, or aurora borealis. Viking's newly launched winter cruises, however, now provide the opportunity to view what the Shetland Islanders call the Merry Dancers. The special sailings on Viking Sky from London to Bergen (or the reverse) between January and March 2019 have overnight stays in Tromso and Alta in Norway's far north beyond the Arctic Circle, perfect aurora-hunting country.
The aurora borealis is incredible. As you sit in darkness, the sky is suddenly illuminated with glowing, swirling coloured lights in one of the great – but ephemeral – wonders of travel. The array of lights in the night sky usually opens with vivid waves and explosions, later quietening down to pulses of colour, most often green, though the aurora can be blue, yellow or violet.
The phenomenon is created when electric particles from solar winds hit the earth's magnetosphere and emit light whose colour depends on gasses present in the upper atmosphere. That's the scientific explanation, but as the lights morph in the sky, tiny humans below can only gaze upwards in awe.
The writer journeyed on Viking Cruises' 15-day Into the Midnight Sun itinerary between Bergen and London and visits both Norway and Scotland. The next departures are in June and July 2019 on new ship Viking Jupiter, as well as on near-identical sister ships Viking Sea and Viking Sun. Prices from $9595 a person twin share, including shore excursions, mealtime beverages, Wi-Fi and gratuities. Phone 138 747, see vikingcruises.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.